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Infallible Pope of Letters

The Letters of T.S. Eliot. Volumes 1 and 2.

The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume 1: 1889–1922, Revised Edition, ed. by Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton. Yale University Press. $45.00.

The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume 2: 1923–1925, ed. by Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton. Yale University Press. $45.00.

In the summer of 1918, T.S. Eliot was alarmed by the news that the American armed forces in Europe, then engaged in the final campaign against Germany, would begin to conscript American citizens living in England. Eliot had arrived in England at the beginning of wwi, four years earlier, and had sunk deep roots in his new country: he was already well known in advanced literary circles, had taken a full-time job as a clerk in Lloyds Bank, and, most important, had married an English woman, Vivienne Haigh-Wood. But he was still an American—he would not adopt British citizenship until 1927—and he was worried that if he did not secure an officer’s commission, he would end up as a grunt in the American army.

The first volume of the new edition of Eliot’s Letters shows how quickly he went into action, trying to get a suitable post in the Naval Intelligence Division. He worked his society contacts and he asked all his prominent literary acquaintances for letters of recommendation. One writer who came through for the twenty-nine-year-old poet was Arnold Bennett, then the dean of English novelists. As it turned out, the war ended before Eliot could enlist, but that December he wrote to Bennett thanking him for his recommendation. “Happily,” Eliot wrote, “the letter remains in my possession, to be realised upon by my heirs at Sothebys.”

This was a piece of flattery, suggesting that Bennett’s signature would make the letter valuable. The irony, of course, is that what would bring a high price today is not Bennett’s name, but Eliot’s. The senior writer and his whole generation of Edwardian realists—Shaw, Galsworthy, Wells—now occupy a distinctly minor place in English literary history; and it was Eliot and his generation, the Modernists, who secured their elders’ demotion. To many readers today, Bennett is known only as the target of Virginia Woolf’s Modernist manifesto “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”—which was published in T.S. Eliot’s magazine, the Criterion, in 1924. In volume two of the Letters of T.S. Eliot, which is dominated by correspondence related to the Criterion, we see Eliot thanking Woolf for this contribution: “with your paper and unpublished manuscripts of Marcel Proust and W.B. Yeats, the July number will be the most brilliant in [the magazine’s] history.”

One wonders if Eliot would have been surprised, even in 1918, to learn that his reputation would one day eclipse Bennett’s. At the time, he was not yet the author of “Gerontion” or The Waste Land or “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” and the best testimony of his genius, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” had been written eight long years before. “I often feel that ‘J.A.P.’ is a swan song,” he wrote his brother Henry in 1916, “but I never mention the fact because Vivien is so exceedingly anxious that I shall equal it, and would be bitterly disappointed if I do not.”

Yet there is no doubt that Eliot was already aiming for the highest heights—or that he felt he was well on his way to achieving them. “There is a small and select public which regards me as the best living critic, as well as the best living poet, in England,” he told his mother in 1919. “I really think that I have far more influence on English letters than any other American has ever had, unless it be Henry James.” This was partly bravado for the benefit of his family back in St. Louis, who had never truly come to terms with Tom’s triple defection—his decision to give up his career as an academic philosopher, move to London, and marry Vivien, all in the summer of 1915.

Eliot was sure enough of himself to defy his parents’ wishes, but the letters show him still touchingly eager to win their approval. Looking forward to the publication of his first American book, in 1919, Eliot explained to his patron John Quinn,

You see I settled over here in the face of strong family opposition, on the claim that I found the environment more favorable to the production of literature. This book is all I have to show for my claim—it would go toward making my parents contented with conditions—and towards satisfying them that I have not made a mess of my life, as they are inclined to believe.

Telling his mother that he was the best poet in England was an ideal way to “satisfy” her, given her own thwarted literary longings. One of the best decisions made by the editors of the correspondence—Eliot’s widow, Valerie, along with Hugh Haughton and John Haffenden—is to include selected letters by people close to Eliot, along with his own. This allows us to hear, in their own words, some of the people who shaped Eliot’s life most intimately—above all, his wife and his mother, Charlotte. “I hope in your literary work you will receive early the recognition I strove for and failed,” Charlotte told Tom in 1910, when he was a senior at Harvard. “I should so have loved a college course, but was obliged to teach before I was nineteen.”

Such letters are an economical way of showing how early Eliot was burdened by parental expectations, and how much nourishment his superego received. Volume one includes a series of letters written by Charlotte to the headmaster of Milton Academy, where Eliot was to spend a year preparing to enter Harvard. “Tom desires companionship of which he has been . . . deprived,” she confides in 1905. “I talk with him as I would with a man, which perhaps is not so good for him as if he had young people about him.”

The dire finishing touch to this indirect portrait is provided by a letter from Eliot’s father, Henry Sr.:

I hope that a cure for Syphilis will never be discovered. It is God’s punishment for nastiness. Take it away and there will be more nastiness, and it will be necessary to emasculate our children to keep them clean. So there!

Eliot himself would never have seen this letter, which was addressed to his uncle, but the editors have cleverly included it as a brief suggestion of the atmosphere in which he was raised. An ambitious, expectant, highly protective mother, a puritanical, prudish father—and always in the background, the caste pride and intellectual traditions of the Eliot clan. (“If I can write English prose,” he told a friend in 1924, it was thanks to “an inherited disposition to rhetoric, from innumerable ancestors who occupied themselves with the church, the law, or politics!”)

It sounds like a perfect recipe for a familiar type of American writer—genteel, cultivated, rather bloodless, what the critic Philip Rahv named the “paleface.” In 1919, the president of Harvard, Charles W. Eliot, wrote his distant cousin the poet, reproving him for having chosen to live in England:

I have never been able to understand how any American man of letters can forego the privilege of being of use primarily to Americans of the present and future generations, as Emerson, Bryant, Lowell, and Whittier were.

The president did not realize that this kind of respectable New England “usefulness” was exactly the fate the poet was fleeing. He had mocked it in an early poem, “Cousin Nancy”:

Miss Nancy Ellicott smoked
And danced all the modern dances;
And her aunts were not quite sure how they felt about it,
But they knew that it was modern.

Upon the glazen shelves kept watch
Matthew and Waldo, guardians of the faith,
The army of unalterable law.

Yet the “unalterable law” of Eliot’s background, personality, and literary inheritance—those volumes of Arnold and Emerson—was not easily cast off. Indeed, his first masterpiece, “Prufrock,” is a document of the young writer’s fear that he would not be able to avoid it, that he would be doomed to civilized impotence:

Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous.

Another poem of the same period is titled “Portrait of a Lady,” and it has often been noted how much Eliot had in common with Henry James—he noted it himself in his self-justifying letter to his mother. Prufrock, one might say, is a younger version of Lambert Strether, the protagonist of James’s novel The Ambassadors—a sexless man of letters, the editor of a mild New England literary magazine, who comes to Europe in late middle age and realizes that he has wasted his life. “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to,” Strether famously exhorts, and it is a mistake that Prufrock fears he cannot avoid: “Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,/Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?”

What made Eliot a great poet was the fact that in the crucial moment, he did find the strength to force a crisis. One of the most valuable and exciting achievements of the Letters is to document that moment, which came in the summer of 1915. After studying at Oxford, Eliot was expected to return to Harvard and finish his doctoral dissertation in philosophy. But as he wrote to his college friend, the poet Conrad Aiken, the prospect weighed on him like spiritual death:

I dread returning to Cambridge . . . and the people in Cambridge whom one fights against and who absorb one all the same. The great need is to know one’s own mind, and I don’t know that: whether I want to get married, and have a family, and live in America all my life, and compromise and conceal my opinions and forfeit my independence for the sake of my children’s future; or save my money and retire at fifty to a table on the boulevard, regarding the world placidly through the fumes of an aperitif at 5 pm—How thin either life seems!

He was willing to do anything, even wreck his life, in order to save it, as he hinted to Aiken in an earlier letter:

Does anything kill as petty worries do? And in America we worry all the time. That, in fact, is I think the great use of suffering, if it’s tragic suffering—it takes you away from yourself—and petty suffering does exactly the reverse, and kills your inspiration.

Eliot preserved his inspiration and found tragic suffering in the same rash decision: to marry Vivien Haigh-Wood, after three months’ acquaintance, in June 1915. Vivien, the daughter of a painter, was raffish, witty, adventurous, sexy—the perfect medicine, it must have seemed, for a twenty-six-year-old suffering from “virginity and shyness.” “Now that we have been married a month, I am convinced that she has been the one person for me,” Eliot wrote his father that summer. “She has everything to give that I want, and she gives it. I owe her everything.” Above all, she gave him an anchor in England and literature, which made it possible for him to resist the strong tides pulling him back to America and academia.

Yet if there is one theme that dominates these two volumes of letters, it is the growing horror of this marriage. Cannily, the editors follow Eliot’s grateful letter to his father with a letter of Vivien’s, written while the new groom was making a flying visit to America to explain himself to his family. Left on her own, Vivien wrote to Eliot’s friend, and her old admirer, Scofield Thayer:

I was at the Savoy the other night, with two male friends who are consoling the grass widow, and I thought of you, Scofield . . . You ought really to be over now, just to think of the dinners in Soho we could do—and grass widows do seem, I find, to be so very very attractive, much more than spinsters!

How could the owner of this voice, so worldly and coquettish, possibly marry the author of “Prufrock”? It does not take long for the letters to register the dissonance. Writing to his brother in September 1916, Eliot reports that “the present year”—the first year of his marriage—“has been, in some respects, the most awful nightmare of anxiety that the mind of man could conceive, but at least it is not dull, and it has its compensations.” A year later he is writing to an American friend, “I have been living in one of Dostoevsky’s novels, you see, not in one of Jane Austen’s.” Marrying Vivien saved Eliot, but also damned him: it was his fullest experience of the kind of existential risk he evoked in The Waste Land:

Datta: what have we given?
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, have we existed . . .

Already in these early years, the arcane power of his verse and the magisterial judgments of his criticism were turning Eliot into a literary figure of unique authority. In 1919, the writer Richard Aldington, who would become a close friend and collaborator, wrote to Eliot for the first time, ending with an apology: “Excuse the impertinence of all this and its rather heavy style, due to a sort of pious terror.”
This is the reverential awe that would become, for the next fifty years, the standard readerly response to Eliot, turning him into an infallible pope of letters. To read the American New Critics of the thirties—Ransom, Tate, Warren—is to hear Eliot’s voice in a dozen echoes. Thanks to Eliot’s 1921 essay “The Metaphysical Poets,” John Donne went from minor figure to the center of the English canon—virtually displacing Milton, whom Eliot disdained. Poets who were out of sympathy with Eliot’s pessimism, conservatism, and vatic formality felt themselves simply suffocated by his influence. To William Carlos Williams, The Waste Land was like an atom bomb that wiped out the natural growth of American Modernism.

It is strange to read the Letters, then, and realize that even as he consolidated this superb image, Eliot was not ashamed to parade his woes before his friends in a way that many a lesser person would find undignified. For months at a time, hardly a letter goes by without a complaint about overwork, flu, exhaustion, nerves, money troubles. One of the running dramas of the letters is Eliot’s attempt to escape from Lloyds Bank, where he worked eight hours a day, leaving only his evenings for writing. Eliot the banker is frequently cited, along with Stevens the insurance man and Williams the doctor, as a reproach to today’s poets, proving that a poet benefits from being immersed in the real world. That bracing view is hard to maintain after reading the Letters: while Eliot was grateful to the bank for hiring and promoting him in hard times, he desperately wanted more congenial work, and he had to stage periodic nervous breakdowns in order to get time to write. (The Waste Land was written in part at a sanatorium—his version of Yaddo.)

Starting in 1922, when he began to edit the Criterion, Eliot didn’t even have his evenings for poetry. The majority of letters in volume two deal with Criterion business, and are less than revealing about Eliot as a man or a poet. But they suggest the sheer amount of work Eliot put into the magazine—a second full-time job on top of the bank. As he explained to his brother:

the Criterion has to compete with reviews which have an editor and a sub-editor devoting all their time to it, a business manager, an office and a secretarial staff. The Criterion is run without an office, without any staff or business manager, by a sickly bank clerk and his wife.... When I finally add that I have not only taken no salary but have actually been considerably out of pocket for payment of a secretary . . . it is enough to make any outsider believe that I ought to be certified a lunatic.

Yet when better opportunities did present themselves—a scheme by Ezra Pound to collect subsidies from patrons, a job offer at a magazine owned by John Maynard Keynes—Eliot always found reasons to turn them down. Writing to Keynes declining the literary editorship of the Nation, Eliot signs off with a masterstroke of self-pity:

Realising perfectly that my behaviour in this matter will always be incomprehensible to those of my friends who have worked so hard on my behalf, and that it can have no other effect than to forfeit your good will and that of many others.

By the time Eliot starts complaining to Aiken about his hurt finger—“I have been having a great deal of trouble with my hand getting an abscess under the finger nail which became infected and I am not out of trouble yet”—the reader can deduce that this parading of his troubles must have served a deep psychological need. Not for nothing did Eliot write a “Love Song of St. Sebastian,” which didn’t make it into his Collected Poems but is reproduced in volume one of the Letters:

I would flog myself until I bled
And after hour on hour of prayer
And torture and delight
Until my blood should ring the lamp
And glisten in the light.

In fact, to read Eliot’s poems in the light of the letters is to realize how deeply he is a poet of complaint—from Prufrock’s “I grow old, I grow old” to the majestic lament of “Ash-Wednesday”:

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again.

Above all, Eliot’s complaints in the Letters have to do with Vivien:

For the last four days Vivien has been lying in the most dreadful agony with neuritis in every nerve, increasingly—arms, hands, legs, feet, back. Have you ever been in such incessant and extreme pain that you felt your sanity going, and that you no longer knew reality from delusion? That’s the way she is.

This is from 1921, and it only gets worse from there. By 1925, when the second volume of the letters ends, Vivien’s physical and mental health has suffered total collapse, after years of drug addiction and quack diets left her weighing just eighty pounds. Eliot’s hopelessness in the face of his wife’s illness is nowhere clearer than in a series of letters to John Middleton Murry—a prominent critic and editor, and the widower of Katherine Mansfield. These letters are almost too piteous to read:

In the last ten years—gradually, but deliberately—I have made myself into a machine. I have done it deliberately—in order to endure, in order not to feel—but it has killed V. In leaving the bank I hope to become less a machine—but yet I am frightened—because I don’t know what it will do to me—and to V.—should I come alive again. . . . But the dilemma—to kill another person by being dead, or to kill them by being alive? Is it best to make oneself a machine, and kill them by not giving nourishment, or to be alive, and kill them by wanting something that one cannot get from that person? Does it happen that two persons’ lives are absolutely hostile? Is it true that sometimes one can only live by another’s dying?

Eight years later Eliot would leave Vivien, and eventually have her committed to an asylum. The poet’s treatment of his wife has become, in the last few decades, one of the major grounds for posterity’s overturning of his legend. Michael Hastings’s play Tom & Viv and the biography of Vivienne Eliot by Carole Seymour-Jones, among other works, helped to advance a view of Eliot as a heartless misogynist who trampled on his gifted, misunderstood wife. Another kind of indictment focuses on Eliot’s anti-Semitism, which was never hidden, but which has been center stage ever since Anthony Julius’s 1995 book T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form. Naturally, once he is seen as a reactionary, misogynist anti-Semite, Eliot rather forfeits his claim to moral authority.

The editors of the Letters are quite aware of the biographical and critical context in which they appear. In fact, this new edition is actually a relaunching of an aborted series that began in 1988 and ground to a halt after one volume. It’s impossible to say how much the decision to postpone the Letters reflects Valerie Eliot’s desire to protect her late husband’s reputation, and how much her desire to collect as much material as possible. But it is to her credit that she does not suppress the ample evidence in the Letters that Eliot was, indeed, a reactionary, misogynist anti-Semite.
Indeed, he says as much himself. In 1924, he tells his mother that

my political and social views are so reactionary and ultra-conservative. They have become gradually more so and I am losing the approval of the moderate and tepid whigs and Liberals who have most of the literary power.

And his feelings about Jews are about what you would expect from the author of “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar”: “I am sick of doing business with Jew publishers who will not carry out their part of the contract unless they are forced to. . . . I wish I could find a decent Christian publisher in New York,” he writes to John Quinn, the New York lawyer who acted as his agent. The editors include a letter from his mother showing that this was an inherited prejudice: “It is very bad in me, but I have an instinctive antipathy to Jews, just as I have to certain animals,” Charlotte Eliot wrote.

Yet even as they document everything objectionable about T.S. Eliot, these new volumes of Letters also succeed in making him more interesting and even more sympathetic. That is because they are so evidently the products of a flawed human being, and not of a pope or demigod. In these early letters—the volumes to come may not be nearly so revealing—Eliot is a young man in a frenzy of self-invention, driven by guilt, fear, egotism, sexual confusion, and spiritual yearning. He is often unlikeable, above all for his pride, which led him to conceal his actual, fallible self in the armor of an illegitimate authority. (“Perhaps all I have to say is that one must develop a hard exterior in order to be spontaneous—one cannot be that unless nothing can touch what is inside,” he told one friend.)

But no writer deserves that kind of authority, and in claiming it, Eliot invited and deserved posterity’s retribution. In the end, a poet endures not as a critical or political lawgiver, but for his ability to express what we all feel and suffer; and Eliot endures because his poetry has that power in such great measure. Now that we no longer have to rebel against T.S. Eliot, perhaps we can move on to the more difficult and rewarding task of trying to understand him.

Originally Published: January 3rd, 2012

Poet and literary critic Adam Kirsch was born in Los Angeles and earned his BA from Harvard. He is the author of three collections of poetry: The Thousand Wells (2002), selected for the New Criterion Poetry Prize; Invasions (2008); and Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August...

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  1. January 13, 2012
     Christopher T. George

    Great essay. But look at the publication information for the two books. The title of the first book is not 1989-1922 is it? In fact the first date should be 1898 not 1989. It's wrong in the printed issue but you could get it right here.